WILLIAM DE BOHUN stood hidden in the shadows of the castle’s stone walls and looked at his nephew, who sat in the window enclosure, Rowan’s golden hair bathed in sunlight, his handsome face frowning in concentration as he studied the manuscript before him. William didn’t like to think how much this young man had come to mean to him over the years. Rowan was the son he wished he had been able to breed.
As William looked at the tall, broad-shouldered, slim-hipped, handsome young man, he once again wondered how that dark, ugly Thal could have bred someone like Rowan. Thal called himself King of Lanconia but he wore animal skins, his long dirty hair hung past his shoulders, and he ate and spoke like the barbarian he was. William was disgusted by him and only allowed him to remain in his house at the request of King Edward. William had given the man the hospitality of his estate and had instructed his steward to plan entertainments for the loud, crude vulgarian, but William himself had stayed as far as possible from the hideous young man.
Now, looking at Rowan, William’s stomach tightened in remembered anguish. While William was busying himself far away from the barbarian king, his beautiful, kind, dear sister, Anne, had been falling in love with the odious man. By the time William realized what was happening, Anne was so deeply bewitched by the man that she was vowing to kill herself if she could not have him. The stupid barbarian king didn’t even seem to realize that Anne was endangering her immortal soul by the mere mention of suicide.
Nothing William said could dissuade Anne. William pointed out the repulsiveness of Thal’s person and Anne looked at him as if he were stupid. “He’s not repulsive to a woman,” she had said, laughing in a way that made William slightly queasy as he thought of that dark greasy man’s hands on Anne’s slim, blonde person.
In the end, King Edward had made William’s decision for him. He said there weren’t many Lanconians but they were a fierce lot, and if their king wanted a rich English bride, he should have her.
So King Thal married William’s beautiful sister Anne. William stayed drunk for ten days, hoping that when he sobered it would all turn out to be his imagination. But when he woke from his drunken stupor he saw Thal, a head taller than his tall sister, swooping down on her, enveloping her fair loveliness with his darkness.
Nine months later Rowan had been born. From the first William had been inordinately fond of the pretty blond child. His own childless marriage made him hungry for a son. Thal showed no interest in the babe. “Bah! It screams at one end and stinks at the other. Children belong to women. I’ll wait until he’s a man,” Thal had grunted in that strangely accented English of his. He was much more interested in when Anne would be well enough to return to his bed.
William had adopted Rowan as his own, spending endless hours making toys for the boy, playing with the child, holding his chubby fingers as he took his first steps. Rowan was fast becoming William’s reason for living.
When Rowan was just over a year old, his sister Lora was born. Like her brother, she was a pretty blonde child, and looked as if she had inherited nothing from her swarthy father.
When Lora was five days old, Anne had died.
In his grief, William saw nothing but his own misery. He did not see the brooding emptiness of Thal. All William knew was that Thal was the cause of his beloved sister’s death. He ordered Thal from his house.
Heavily, Thal had said he would pack his men and children and leave in the morning to return to Lanconia.
William had not comprehended Thal’s words, but when he heard noise in the courtyard below, he realized that Thal meant to take Rowan and the new baby from him. William went berserk. A normally sane man, he acted out of rage, grief, and fear. He gathered his own knights from the barracks and attacked Thal and his personal guard while they slept.
William had never seen men fight as these Lanconians did. They were outnumbered four to one but still, three of them, including Thal, managed to escape.
Dripping blood from several deep slashes in his arms and legs and one across his right cheek, Thal stood on the castle wall in the pink light of dawn and cursed William and his issue. Thal said he knew William wanted Prince Rowan but he would never get him. Rowan was Lanconian, not English, and someday Rowan would come home to him.
Then Thal and his men had escaped over the wall and disappeared into the forest.
William’s bad luck began with that night. Where once his life had been touched with gold, it soon turned to lead. His wife had died of the pox a month later, then the pox had killed over half his peasants, leaving the grain unharvested in the fields. An early snow left the fields rotting.
William married again, this time to a fat healthy fifteen-year-old who proved to be fertile as a rabbit. She gave him four sons in four years then conveniently died with the last one. William did not grieve since he had found that when his infatuation with her beautiful young body had worn off, she was a stupid, frivolous girl who was no companion.
William had the care of his own four sons and Anne’s two children. The contrast was stark. Rowan and Lora were tall and beautiful, golden-haired and handsome. They were intelligent, eager to learn, polite, while his own sons were stupid and clumsy, sullen and resentful. They hated Rowan and teased Lora viciously. William knew this was his punishment for what he had done to Thal. He even began to believe it was Anne’s ghost repaying him for his crime against her husband.
When Rowan was ten, a man came to William’s castle, an old man with a beard hanging to the middle of his chest, a circle of gold set with four rubies on his head. He said his name was Feilan and that he was Lanconian and that he had come to teach Rowan Lanconian ways.
William had been ready to run the old man through with a sword until Rowan had stepped forward. It was almost as if the boy had known the man was going to come and had been waiting for him. “I am Prince Rowan,” he had said solemnly.
In that moment William knew he was losing the most precious thing on earth to him—and there was nothing he could do to prevent the loss.